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What you don't see in the Catawba River is what's doing the most harm

These views of the Catawba River show, above, a glass of water pulled from the river at Rock Hill's River Park, discharge pipes, below left, from Rock Hill's wastewater treatment plant, and the rocky waters below the Lake Wylie dam.
These views of the Catawba River show, above, a glass of water pulled from the river at Rock Hill's River Park, discharge pipes, below left, from Rock Hill's wastewater treatment plant, and the rocky waters below the Lake Wylie dam.

In the murky waters of the Catawba River and the ripples of its peaceful creeks and streams lurk potential threats to people and wildlife.

Harmful bacteria and chemical elements pouring into the Catawba River Basin from homes, stormwater runoff and sewage spills have caused parts of the Catawba and most of its tributaries to miss the mark on federal clean water standards, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, putting public health and aquatic life at risk.

The problem is severe enough that at least one environmental group this summer said the Catawba River Basin has "the most concentrated" water pollution in the state.

The Catawba River Basin in South Carolina begins at Lake Wylie on the state line in northern York County and runs downstream along the Catawba River to Lake Wateree, south of Great Falls in Kershaw County. The basin includes dozens of streams and creeks that feed the river along the way.

Of the 127 sites along these waters DHEC monitors regularly, 78 failed to meet federal standards for supporting recreation or aquatic life between 2000 and 2004, according to the most recent DHEC data. Most sites were contaminated by fecal bacteria, copper, phosphorous and various chemicals, according to DHEC reports.

The 78 sites are scattered throughout the entire basin.

Earl Meyer, chairman of the S.C. Sierra Club's water committee, and a team of eight retired engineers and scientists have been studying the data for the past year. They've compared the eight major basins in the state, and concluded the Catawba, Lake Marion and the Greenville-Spartanburg areas are home to the three most polluted waters in South Carolina, Meyer said.

Catawba is 'densely-polluted'

"They're all heavily polluted, so I don't know if (the Catawba) wins that prize (of being worst) or not," Meyer said. "But in working with all these rivers, we believe the Catawba is the most concentrated and densely-polluted waters in the state."

However, DHEC officials said it's impossible to compare pollution in one body of water to another.

"DHEC doesn't do comparisons," said Carol Copeland, watershed manager for the Catawba basin. "That's just too hard to do. There's too many different dynamics in all the basins."

Meyer's research indicates many streams in the basin contain fecal coliform bacteria -- which might contain disease-causing organisms that can lead to cholera, typhoid fever and eye, ear, nose and throat infections, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The bacteria levels in some places are six times or more higher than the amount the EPA classifies as safe for swimming or bodily contact, according to DHEC statistics.

Among the worst places are Crowders Creek near Lake Wylie and Steele Creek in northern York County.

Where does it come from?

The pollution comes from several sources: stormwater drainage, runoff from developments, septic tank leaks and sewage spills, DHEC officials said.

Cheryl Salomone, a DHEC pollution outreach coordinator, said a common cause of harmful chemicals entering the water is fast-growing development in the area. She said fertilizers, pesticides and other common chemicals are often used too heavily, and the excess easily enters storm drains. Rainfall washes the chemicals directly into rivers and streams. She said pet feces, containing bacteria, left in yards also can wash into storm drains and eventually empty into a stream.

"Don't overfertilize. Pick up pet waste. All these things just end up in the storm drain," Salomone said.

Salomone said septic systems, a common sewage disposal method in rural parts of the Catawba basin, can leak and contribute to pollution. She said improper maintenance and aging tanks pose one of the greatest risks.

Meyer agrees. He said septic systems in the Upstate pose a particularly big risk to clean water. He said the area's rocky, clay soil allows drainage from these systems to reach streams faster than the Lowcountry's sandy, flat ground, which filters out harmful bacteria. The Sierra Club's research shows a much higher concentration of fecal bacteria in the Upstate than the Lowcountry, he said.

He said the Sierra Club has met with DHEC about its concerns and is hoping more will be done to encourage more environmentally friendly practices in the Catawba basin.

"It isn't our task to tell people how awful they are. We just want them to understand reality," Meyer said. "You can't protect a river or creek in one isolated spot. You have to protect the whole basin."

Catawba Riverkeeper Donna Lisenby, director of the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation, agrees sewage is a large pollutant. She believes large sewage systems are partially to blame.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities had 370 raw sewage spills in 2005-2006, and 330,000 gallons of sewage reached surface water, said utilities spokesman Vic Simpson, an 83 percent decrease from 2004. But Simpson said data for 2006-2007 is being compiled, and he expects the numbers to worsen.

"The numbers this year aren't going to be as good," he said. "We had a few incidents that were large."

Simpson said utility officials have been working to reduce spills since a record year in 2003 and have been raising awareness about pouring grease down drains, the top cause of sewage backups.

Lisenby said organizations such as hers have succeeded at petitioning leaders and raising awareness to reduce spills. But having the largest city in the Carolinas (Charlotte) located in the Catawba basin has convinced her to agree with claims that the Catawba is the most densely polluted river in South Carolina.

"That certainly would be consistent with what I've seen patrolling and protecting the Catawba every day," she said.

Another potential source of pollution is municipal water treatment plants. Cities and towns along the Catawba basin, including Charlotte, York, Rock Hill and Lancaster, empty millions of gallons of treated water every day into streams and rivers. These facilities are permitted by DHEC to release the treated water but must comply with limits specified in each permit. The limits are set so the river can cleanse itself in pace with the water entering from treatment plants, Copeland said.

Failure to follow the limits could harm waters and result in a steep fine, Copeland said. But no significant violations have occurred recently, she said.

Problems are 'spotty'

Peter Phillips, a biology professor at Winthrop University, has studied the Catawba River for the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation. He acknowledges pollution is present, but warns about making sweeping judgments.

"You might find that DHEC reports that a particular tributary of the Catawba violates a clean-water standard, or is out of compliance, due to fecal coliform bacteria. However, just based on that tributary, you wouldn't want to necessarily go ahead and state that the entire river is polluted with fecal coliforms," Phillips said in an e-mail. "These problems are generally spotty, but yes, there are many pollution issues on the Catawba in general."

For Redd Thomas, the issue of pollution on the Catawba River is not new. Thomas, a member of the Catawba Indian Nation, grew up fishing on the river and its streams decades ago. While enjoying an afternoon at River Park in Rock Hill last week, he recalled the dyes textile mills once dumped in the river.

"I used to fish from here to Lancaster. We used to call that creek Dye Branch," he said, pointing at a nearby stream. "The water would come out blues and greens and all kinds of shades from the dye."

Thomas said the closing of many plants and mills along the river has slowed some pollution, but he knows the housing developments coming behind them might make matters worse. "It's gotta be better than it was, at least for now," Thomas said. "I love this river, but with all these houses coming, who knows what will happen."

Phillips said the greatest pollution risk facing the Catawba in the future will be sediments washing into streams from development and chemicals from homes winding up in the river.

"But try to convince homeowners to eliminate their trophy lawns, and you've got a problem on your hands," Phillips said. "We tend to want to point our finger and blame someone else, but anyone who uses fertilizer, no matter how far away from the Catawba itself, is contributing to this problem. It's a lifestyle dilemma."

3,393

Catawba River Basin: By the numbers

Miles of shoreline of the rivers, streams and creeks in the Catawba River Basin

Miles of shoreline that don't meet EPA standards for either recreation or aquatic life

Acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds in the Catawba basin

Acres of lakes, reservoirs and ponds that do not meet EPA standards for either recreation or aquatic life

Maximum fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water to meet EPA clean water standards for swimming

Fecal coliform bacteria per 100 ml of water in Crowders Creek west of Lake Wylie, says DHEC. This is one of the highest ratings in the basin

6,767

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